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Minnesota tradition uses Arbor Day to plant trees and ease political tensions

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today is Arbor Day. For lawmakers in Minnesota that means taking a break from politics to engage in the bipartisan tradition of sharing trees. Here's Minnesota Public Radio's Clay Masters.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: The signs of early spring are all around as Representative Rick Hansen, a Democrat, trudges up a hill on his hobby farm in southeast Minnesota.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS CRUNCHING)

MASTERS: The chair of the House environmental committee from South Saint Paul stops to show off a tree he planted in 2005, his first year in the legislature.

RICK HANSEN: I've been using Arbor Day trees to fill in the holes (laughter). Not all trees live, you know? It's part of the circle of life.

MASTERS: The Arbor Day trees he references are part of a Minnesota House tradition that began decades ago. Two lawmakers from competing parties started passing out pint-sized trees to have a brief respite from partisan clashes and to recognize the importance of forestry in the state.

HANSEN: Whether it's in the pine lands up north or in the oak country down here, or even in the prairie where the cottonwoods are, I mean, people planting trees, it's something that I think Minnesotans pass on from generation to generation.

MASTERS: The four lawmakers split the cost this year, as they have done in years past.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So don't be shy. Get your tree and make sure you get it home and get it in the dirt at your earliest opportunity.

MASTERS: The tradition has some deep roots.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK, any other announcements? The member from Dakota this time, Representative Ozment.

MASTERS: Here's former Representative Dennis Ozment speaking on the House floor in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENNIS OZMENT: The first seedling I received here on the floor of the House, I measured it last night. It's 14 feet tall. So these things really do grow, and it keeps you a reminder of what some of our actions should be about here.

MASTERS: Former Representative Loren Solberg was one of the original organizers. He says today's current hyperpartisan political climate calls for more interactions across party lines.

LOREN SOLBERG: Try your best to understand where they come from 'cause that's how they get to understand you as well. It's extremely important.

JOSH HEINTZEMAN: I don't think there's a single member that walks into our session on Arbor Day and says, oh, gee, they're handing out trees. That's terrible. (Laughter) Everybody's, for the most part, clambering for trees.

MASTERS: That's Representative Josh Heintzeman from Nisswa. He's the lead Republican on the House environmental committee and owns a small custom woodworking business. He's one of the lawmakers behind this year's effort and has this to say about being in the minority party at the Capitol.

HEINTZEMAN: The process has been very challenging for my members and for myself personally. Is there an opportunity on Arbor Day to potentially have some detente for a moment? Possibly.

MASTERS: This week, political tensions have ratcheted up after Democratic Senator Nicole Mitchell was charged with a felony for burglary. Republicans want her expelled, and now votes are tied up, gumming up the final four weeks of session. Meanwhile, at Representative Rick Hansen's farm, he notes it's harder to work across party lines than when he was first elected 20 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

HANSEN: You know, as an environment chair, I think that, you know, the pollution in our politics is the money.

MASTERS: Hansen says distributing these trees isn't going to solve the problem, but the little acts of kindness are important as things wind down at the Capitol.

HANSEN: We're back at spring. When I'm driving here, you know, I can feel the tension get away. And when I get outside and, you know, you can hear the birds around us, that's a lot different than hearing from lobbyists.

MASTERS: The chirping from the birds is a little different than the chirping from the lobbyists is what you're saying?

HANSEN: It's very different. I'd rather listen to the chirping of the birds.

MASTERS: For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Saint Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.